The Cuisine of Korea: food as medicine

K3Korea :  land of mountains, forests, Communism and kimchi. Korean cuisine has a history dating back centuries. Since 300BC, it has been heavily influenced by the Chinese, particularly in regards to its medicinal aspects. According to Taoist philosophy, health is a state of balance in which food choice is key and a person’s body is healthy only when the yin-yang and the five elements are in balance.

Yin and yang are energetic qualities that created the five elements (wood, fire, soil, metal and water) with matching colours (green, red, yellow, white, and black) that shape everything in the universe, including our health.

For this reason, a traditional Korean table includes dishes or garnishes of five K2colors, most of which are low in calories and full of vegetables: an ancient philosophy that pre-empts today’s international campaign to encourage the daily consumption of five servings of fruits and vegetables.

In Korean cuisine, herbs are used for their medicinal value and many common ingredients are considered to have health benefits. For example: raw potato juice or chives are taken for an upset stomach; garlic is used to clear the blood and aid digestion; nuts are good for the skin and for pregnant women; dried red dates and bellflower roots are used for coughs and colds and rice porridge with pine nuts – in coastal areas, rice porridge and abalone – rehydrates and strengthens the sick. Dried pollack (fish) with bean sprouts and tofu cures hangovers, while ginseng, an ancient staple believed to be energizing,  is found in capsules and candies, cigarettes, beauty products, teas and tonics.

With increasing numbers of restaurant chains, many traditional recipes are being K4standardized, and regional differences are becoming blurred. This has made authentic Korean food harder to find, but many people seek the quality and health aspects ingrained in traditional Korean cuisine. Although the medicinal aspect of food is not as prevalent as it has been in the past, the custom of caring for the health and well-being of guests and family is still a key focus for the Korean cook, who puts great thought and care into preparing food for others. The first question for any guest is always ‘Did you have eat? Did you have dinner?’

Like Filipino cuisine, the philosophy behind Korean food is that the diner should experience a variety of complementary tastes and textures: spicy, sour, salty, sweet and bitter – a balanced harmony of flavours and colours. And, like Filipino cuisine, rice is the core of every meal. Cooking techniques include grilling, boiling, steaming and a little stir-frying. The Korean barbecue is popular in restaurants, but at home a table top grill is more common.

K5A typical Korean meal includes rice (bap), soup (guk), and possibly bulgogi (pan-fried beef), plus four or five side dishes: kimchi, banchan and namul (seasoned vegetables) accompanied by dipping sauces.  The number of side dishes indicates the level of formality. All the dishes are laid out in the middle of the table, and everyone helps himself – but only after the most senior diner has picked up his spoon.

The ubiquitous kimchi is mostly commonly made with napa cabbage, fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions and chili pepper; it can be made with a variety of other vegetables. High in Vitamin B, minerals, lactic acid and fibre for maintaining healthy bowels, there are endless regional varieties of kimchi, depending on availability of ingredients and the degree of spiciness.   It can be served as a side dish or stirred into fried rice, soup or a hot pot. Before refrigeration, large earthenware jars of kimchi would be buried in the ground, the fermentation creating good bacteria for health and nutrition, particularly important through winter months.

“A man can live without a wife, but not without kimchi

Banchan is one of the unique features of Korean cuisine. Like sawsawan, these side dishes accompany the main dishes or can be eaten like tapas, before the main course arrives. There are many types of banchan including kimchi, mung bean pancake, steamed beansprouts with sesame oil and mini meatballs. Koreans do not make sweet desserts but prefer to finish a meal with fresh fruit.

In 2001, Korean Chef Jang Bae Jang moved his family from Jonju jangganae1City in South West Korea to Manila. Two years later, he and his wife, Young Ran Seo, opened a restaurant on Escriva Drive in Ortigas. The menu was originally a mix of Japanese and Korean food.  Today, “Jang Ga Nae” (Jang’s Place) is purely and authentically Korean. Chef Jang makes no allowances for Filipino tastes, and has never altered or indigenized his recipes in any way. No one seems to be complaining – when I visited at lunchtime, midweek, the restaurant was packed.

The area already had a small Korean community, which has grown considerably over the past decade. Escriva now boasts three Korean restaurants, two Korean grocery stores and a Korean hair salon.

Chef Jang buys a few Korean specialities, such as chili paste and soy bean paste, from the local Korean grocer. The US beef is imported, but most of his ingredients are sourced at the Farmers Market in Quezon, which he visits every morning at 4 o’clock.

I ask if Chef Jang also cooks at home and his daughter Jasmine laughs softly. Jang cooks for the customers, she says, but the home kitchen is her mother’s domain and only she may cook for the family.

* First published in HealthToday, November 2013, and with thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

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